Attention U.S. Department of Commerce: your well-intentioned efforts to help the U.S. solar panel manufacturing industry are not working.
Even with 30%+ tariffs on imported solar panels and cells, the remaining U.S. manufacturers are struggling to stay competitive. The good news, as one would expect, is that there is strong demand for Made in the U.S.A. solar panels – both from ordinary consumers as well as government purchases. However, structural issues with the supply chain for solar components puts the remaining U.S. manufacturers at a substantial disadvantage.
The reasons for these supply chain challenges are simple. Basically, many of the key components that go into solar modules are not manufactured in the U.S., including wafers, cells, EVA and junction boxes. And many of the components that are indeed available in the U.S. — such as glass, backsheets and aluminum frames — are significantly less expensive at comparable quality levels if purchased from overseas suppliers. To make matters even worse, these essential imported solar components are subjected to additional tariffs when imported from certain countries. Essentially, we are shooting ourselves in our foot if we expect U.S. solar manufacturers to be competitive when 30%+ tariffs are applied to most of the major solar components.
A rational plan to make the U.S. competitive in solar manufacturing does not require government support. Instead, it requires government to get out of the way and set a long-term solar manufacturing policy. U.S. manufacturers would instantly be more competitive if they did not have to pay tariffs on imported solar components — particularly cells and aluminum solar frames. Once the U.S. solar manufacturing base is re-established and consistent, U.S. manufacturers could invest in domestic wafer, cell, junction box and other component manufacturing.
How are U.S. manufacturers coping with competitive global issues of cell production and purchasing, U.S. production costs, cell and panel tariffs, local and federal regulations, and shifting national policies? The best way to answer this question is to speak with one of the most experienced U.S. solar panel manufacturers. My guest on this week’s show is Mamun Rashid, COO of Auxin Solar, based in San Jose, California. Auxin manufactures high quality poly and mono solar panels for residential and commercial customers. They also do original equipment manufacturing for tier-1 manufacturers who have “made in the USA” requirements. Please listen up to this week’s Energy Show for Mamun’s perspective on the opportunity and challenges for companies manufacturing solar panels in the U.S.
There are there are three market segment for solar in the U.S.: residential, utility and commercial. Based on some rough math, in 2018 we expect to install 5 to 7 million solar panels on homes in the U.S. In areas with high residential electric rates, paybacks are usually in the range of 4-8 years. But the utility solar segment is much larger: about 20 million solar panels will be installed by utilities in 2018. Utilities realize that it is cheaper to generate power with solar compared to coal or nuclear generation. Moreover, the combination of solar and batteries is projected to be even cheaper than natural gas in a few years.
The commercial solar segment has been growing, but has been challenged by a lack of efficient financing, slow decision making, and relatively high costs. But this market segment is poised to grow much more quickly in the coming years. Standardized lease, PPA (Power Purchase Agreement) and PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) financing is now available. Cheaper solar panels, inverters and rooftop installation techniques are reducing up front costs. And commercial customer decision making is accelerating now that a number of national retailers (Costco, Staples, Target, Safeway), tech companies (Microsoft, Apple, Google), casinos and data centers have made rooftop solar a standard part of all their buildings.
Quite simply, the biggest advantage of rooftop solar to commercial customers is financial. As with the residential and utility segments, almost any commercial building can reduce their electricity costs by 20-40% (net of financing costs). Paybacks are in the range of 3-8 years, easy financing is available for both for-profit and non-profit businesses, and even tenant-occupied buildings with triple net leases can benefit.
As a result, the acres and acres of flat roof buildings around the country are destined to be put to work generating clean, renewable power. For more about commercial solar for businesses of all sizes, Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show.
This week’s Energy Show is for solar power customers, contractors and inverter manufacturers who appreciate the need for reliable solar power systems. Surprising as it may seem, most solar monitoring systems are simply not up to the reliability standards of the panels and inverters they support.
The good news is that solar monitoring problems almost never affect system performance. Monitoring failures may indicate an inverter problem, but the panels and inverters are almost always working properly. In reality, the problem is with the communications somewhere along the chain – including the inverter, inverter gateway, home router, wireless connections (wifi, zigbee, cellular, etc.), internet connection and server-side software. Troubleshooting these monitoring and communications issues is one of the biggest hassles that contractors have — made more difficult by the fact that most installers do not have home networking IT expertise. As a result, many contractors have changed their inverter suppliers because of less than perfect monitoring hardware and software.
Going back to 2001 I’ve installed inverter systems from over a dozen companies. Not surprisingly, most of these inverters or communications systems are still running (including Trace, SMA, Fat Spaniel, Xantrex, BP Solar, Sharp, Fronius, SunRun, Enphase, SolarBridge, PowerOne, SolarEdge, JLM, Tigo). Although these inverter companies make great inverters, they are not necessarily software and communications experts. The end result is poor monitoring reliability and customer complaints, even when the inverters continue to operate.
To learn more about these solar monitoring issues — as well as my recommendations for long term monitoring reliability— Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show.
What are the best solar panels? That’s a question we are asked all the time. When customers look for the “best” solar panels they consider efficiency, reliability, quality and cost. Cost and efficiency are closely related – all solar panels generate the same amount of electricity (kwh) on a per watt basis. Your appliances can’t tell the difference if they get their electrons from super-efficient panels made in the USA, or the cheapest panels made somewhere in Asia.
Nevertheless, there are clear cut differences among solar panels when it comes to aesthetics (all black panels look better), ease of installation (which effectively reduces costs) and cost per watt pricing (especially in light of the tariffs on solar cells and panels). There are also more subjective distinctions such as brand name and perceived reliability. Generally these subjective measures are not based on comparison data or independent laboratory testing, so be wary of manufacturer’s claims.
So which panels are best? Please Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show for our advice for selecting solar panels for your roof.
The battery storage industry is roughly where the solar industry was in the early 2000’s. It’s a tiny market now, with fewer than 1,000 grid-tied systems installed last year. Nevertheless, technology is evolving rapidly and investor funds are pouring in. There is tremendous money saving potential for customers — while at the same time risks for incumbent energy providers.
The rapid hockey stick growth that we are seeing in the energy storage industry is likely to be even more accelerated than the growth of the solar industry. All the pieces are in place for a number of successful companies throughout the storage value chain. But as with successes in the solar industry, there will be some unfortunate train wrecks along the way as companies or products fail in the market.
In the spirit of George Santayana’s famous quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” on this week’s Energy Show, we will discuss eight mistakes that companies in the solar industry made that hopefully storage companies can avoid:
Mistake 1: Constraints on critical upstream components (Li or Co = Si?)
Mistake 2: Live by incentives and die by incentives
Mistake 3: Releasing half-baked products
Mistake 4: Ignoring software
Mistake 5: Assuming electricity rates will always go up
Mistake 6: Not paying enough attention to safety issues
Mistake 7: Selling commodity components, not bankable systems
Mistake 8: Inevitable black swan events
We call our power system an electric “grid” because it is composed of a network of wires that move the power around from node to node – basically a combination of power sources (natural gas power plants, solar farms, nukes), wires (long distance transmission lines and local distribution utility poles) and controls. Microgrids are the same concept but on a much smaller scale.
One example of a microgrid is a complex of buildings on an island. The power plant on an island has historically been a diesel generator, which feeds power to buildings through a smaller network of relatively low voltage wires. More recently these island microgrids have an array of solar panels and batteries providing most of the power, with a backup diesel generator for extreme weather conditions.
New commercial and residential PV and battery storage systems function essentially the same way. These much smaller microgrids provide inexpensive solar power, maximize savings with batteries for when power is expensive, and function in backup power mode if the utility goes down.
The microgrid concept is becoming more popular due to the realization that multiple, linked smaller power grids are more reliable and less expensive than larger centralized grids. Note that microgrids do not carry the high management and investor overhead that utility grids require. These microgrids can also be deployed much more rapidly and take advantage of the latest technology. Listen up to this week’s Energy Show to learn more about microgrids, and the importance they are playing in the changing landscape of central and distributed energy.
Solar is clean and renewable and cheap. So more solar is better for everyone…except your local utility. Keep in mind that utilities generate their profits from selling electricity and building generation, transmission and distribution assets. When electricity customers install more solar, utilities make less money. Unfortunately, utilities have the political clout to enforce their monopoly on customers who would otherwise prefer less expensive rooftop solar. The biggest battles are emerging in relatively mature solar markets.
Over 15% of residential customers in some areas of Hawaii have rooftop solar. As a result, Hawaii is the first “test case” in the U.S. for high penetration solar. Faced with this loss of profits, the Hawaiian utilities clamped down on new solar installations by capping net metering, raising solar-specific rates, and in some cases simply prohibiting installations. Instead of upgrading the local grid to handle these two-way power flows efficiently, their knee-jerk reaction has been simply to limit solar. Their rationale for these limitations is questionable at best, especially at these still low penetration levels.
The impact on the Hawaiian solar market has been severe. Installations have dramatically slowed down and solar companies have gone out of business. The Solar Survivors (who have not been kicked off the island) are migrating to install battery storage systems which are compatible with new utility solar limitations, albeit at less favorable economics.
My guest on this week’s Energy Show is Marco Mangelsdorf, CEO of Provision Solar on Hilo. Marco has been installing solar since 2000 – and has an abundance of insights and advice for solar installers and customers throughout the U.S.
Solar and battery storage systems are constructed on-site with components from a number of different manufactures. It’s not as if one crate gets delivered to the job site and is simply plugged in. There are on the order of fifty different solar panel manufacturers, half a dozen inverter companies, a dozen racking companies, half a dozen battery companies, and a variety of monitoring and control software choices. Match that product variation up with three thousand different utilities and eighteen thousand cities in the U.S. and it becomes very apparent that there is no “one size fits all” system.
A key part of every residential and commercial solar/battery system is the engineering necessary to select and match these components properly. Getting this engineering work done properly and efficiently is one of the keys to a successful solar and battery storage installation business. As new battery and inverter systems come on the market, equipment choices expand making this system engineering challenge even more difficult.
So Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show as we discuss solar and battery storage engineering with Josh Wiener, President of SepiSolar, a provider of engineering services for solar and battery storage contractors.